China aims to end Hong Kong’s autonomy and clip the freedom of its 7.4 million citizens, and with it sow the seeds for a new cold war in the post-coronavirus world.
Recently, the Chinese government approved a wide-ranging national security law effectively paving the way for sweeping anti-sedition laws to be directly enacted in Hong Kong.
“Anti-China, disrupt-Hong Kong forces have been openly promoting Hong Kong independence. There must be vigorous measures under the law to prevent, halt and punish them,”Wang Chen, a Politburo member, said of the legislative plan
Critics claim the controversial move is aimed at dismantling the “one country, two systems” framework that granted Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and self-governance after the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
“It is definitely the start of a new but sad chapter for Hong Kong. Hong Kong as we knew it is finally dead,”pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo
It is feared the law will allow the Chinese security agencies to set up their operations publicly in Hong Kong for the first time, instead of operating on a limited scale in secrecy, as they have thus far. The law also effectively bans all activities of “foreign forces” interfering in Hong Kong affairs. Legal experts say the law will be enacted through a provision that bypasses Hong Kong’s legislature and public debate.
“The Chinese Communist Party is painting a picture to make it seem like it is abiding by the basic law, but it is not. They’re imposing a draconian law which can be used to silence dissent and infringe on freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kongers,” said Frances Eve, deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of human rights NGOs.
Watch: China just took a huge step to silence Hong Kong
The “one country, two systems” framework
Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, was handed back to China under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that allowed it to keep many liberties denied to Chinese citizens, including free speech, unrestricted Internet access and the right to free assembly. The semiautonomous territory has its own laws, system of government and police force under a mini-constitution known as the “Basic Law” (basically, it bars the mainland Chinese government from interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs).
Though China promised the arrangement would remain in place until 2047, it has been trying to curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy ever since.
In 2003, China tried to pass the national security law into the Basic Law but after hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest the plan was shelved.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the British foreign secretary in 1997, described the current situation as “desperately serious”. He told Newsweek: I think the initial question will be, will Hong Kong itself respond as it has done before? I suspect it will, but it needs international support. Hong Kong’s current status is the result of an international treaty signed by China and the United Kingdom, lodged at the United Nations, which is meant to last for 50 years. Therefore, Britain has a legal, as well as a moral, and ethical entitlement to express its views and do so most strongly. Britain by itself isn’t going to change the whole scene. It needs the United States, Europe, and the Asian countries as well to express their solidarity with the people of Hong Kong.
“If you destroy Hong Kong’s rule of law and its freedom, you destroy international economic confidence in Hong Kong…it will mean a constant and irreversible erosion of Hong Kong’s ability to act as an economic hub, not just for itself but for China as a whole.”
Clamp down on dissent and pro-democracy protests
In February last year, China tried to introduce a bill that would allow “criminals” to be sent to places with which Hong Kong had no extradition treaty — including mainland China. Many claimed it was Beijing’s attempt to target dissidents with phony charges, exposing activists to China’s opaque legal system. Though the extradition bill was withdrawn after massive protests in June, protesters have continued to take over streets staging strikes and turning the protests into a movement about protecting civil liberties, democracy, and Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Today, China is using the coronavirus pandemic, which paralyzed the pro-democracy protests, to crush dissent and impose its authority on Hong Kong. In April this year, Hong Kong police detained 15 prominent pro-democracy activists (including 81-year-old Martin Lee, often called the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong) and opposition politicians for protests organized and carried out in 2019.
China understands that its act of force will find little international attention, as the world is focused on winning the war against coronavirus than on crackdowns on rights, democracy, and freedom. The Independent writes: “The battles of 2019 for democracy and freedom across the world seem to be long forgotten. When seeing photos of army trucks removing bodies from hospitals in Italy, mass graves dug in the US, and billions of people quarantined, it became clear that coronavirus had shifted international attention away from crackdowns on rights and democracy.”
“However, there are consequences to this mass distraction. If public opinion does not hold those who govern under scrutiny, our freedoms might disappear quicker than we think – even in established democracies. At the same time, authoritarians might use this opportunity to continue their grab on power.”
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, accused China of exploiting the world’s focus on the virus with “provocative behavior”. In a statement, Pompeo warned:
“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself. If passed, the national security proposals would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong. The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal.”Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state in a statement
Calling China’s action ‘plain violations’ US President Donald Trump has hit back at Xi with restrictions and revocation of Hong Kong’s special treatment by the US. The UK Foreign secretary Dominic Raab also condemned China’s move. However, China remains unfettered. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned the US, UK, and any other country against any interference in what is “purely an internal Chinese matter”. China also threatened countermeasures against the UK and the US.
China has described Trump Administration’s attempt to raise the issue of the Hong Kong’s New Security Law at the UN security council as “pointless”.
Watch: To punish China, Trump moves to end Hong Kong’s special privileges.
What does China want?
According to The New York Times, Hong Kong as a stubborn base for pro-democracy protesters who reject Chinese sovereignty over the semiautonomous territory is a threat to President Xi Jinping. In his pursuit of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”; Xi has arrested dissidents and human rights lawyers, ramped up censorship, and sent hundreds of thousands of Muslims into internment camps since he came to power in 2012.
“After the last year, there are now serious security issues they need to address. It’s hard to pass legislation in Hong Kong these days, so the central government is taking the initiative and going forward with it.Bernard Chan, a deputy to the National People’s Congress, told CNBC
“We are seeing things like acts of terrorism in Hong Kong, and what matters to China today now are issues such like secession; we are seeing people holding flags asking for Hong Kong independence, we are seeing signs where people will actually want to subvert state power or against the Central People’s Government and clearly, we also see there is meddling from foreign countries, foreign influences,” Chan said.
Under the cover of a pandemic, Xi essentially wants to eliminate “radical anti-China forces” (read pro-democracy protests and dissent) in Hong Kong through the national security law as it wants the whole world (busy with dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic) to know: the long-drawn social unrest sparked by mass protests in 2013 has led to serious national security issues in Hong Kong; “one country, two systems” has failed; and the original design of the Basic Law doesn’t work.